Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Ice Climber Breaks Leg In 100-Foot Fall: An In-Depth Report

S&C for AlmanackAn ice climber fell about a hundred feet and broke his leg while scaling a well-known route on the north side of Pitchoff Mountain over the weekend.

The climber, a 40-year-old man from Stamford, CT, was on the second pitch of Screw and Climaxe when he slipped on thin ice, plummeting below his belayer and coming to rest only 15 feet or so above the ground.

Eight forest rangers, three volunteer rescuers, and a medic carried out a complicated rescue operation in the dark that took roughly four hours, from the time of the initial call to the time the victim was placed in an ambulance.

Forest Ranger Scott van Laer was driving back to Ray Brook from another incident — a climber had fainted in the Trap Dike on Mount Colden — when he got a call at about 4:30 on Saturday afternoon. He heard screaming in the background.

“We knew it was serious, it wasn’t a sprained ankle,” van Laer said. “We knew we had to get there as soon as possible.”

Fortunately, the rangers had finished the earlier mission and were ready to respond at once. Rescue snowmobiles were still on van Laer’s pickup truck. He turned around and drove to the bottom of Old Mountain Road outside Lake Placid. From there, he and four other rangers — Julie Harjung, Chris Kostoss, Robert Praczkajlo, and Joe LaPierre — snowmobiled up the road and onto the Jackrabbit Ski Trail, which climbers use to access the cliffs on the north side of Pitchoff. The base of Screw and Climaxe is about a mile from the trailhead.

At 5:45 p.m., they parked the snowmobiles at a frozen beaver pond. They still had a long slog on a herd path through the snow and across a slope at the base of the cliffs, carrying a litter, ropes, and medical supplies. Sensing a difficult rescue, van Laer called for backup.

LaPierre stayed behind at the pond. The other four rangers reached the victim at about 6:30 p.m. He was “kind of in a pile, his head facing downhill,” van Laer said. “The guy was busted up bad.”

The victim’s right leg was bleeding and swollen badly, and he was in great pain. Harjung, who has advanced medical training, did a quick assessment, and then the rangers moved him onto the litter, where they stabilized him, stanched the bleeding, and splinted the leg.

Meanwhile, Ed Palen, the owner of the Rock and River lodge in Keene, snowshoed to the scene with his 15-year-old son, Tom, bringing warm jackets, food, and water. The victim and his two partners, members of the American Alpine Club, had been staying at Rock and River. After the accident, the two partners phoned Palen, who is an accomplished ice climber. Don Mellor, a well-known ice climber and guidebook author, also came to help.

The rescuers attached ropes to the litter to control its descent. Mellor paid out rope while others carried and/or guided the litter. Going sideways across the slope below the cliffs made it difficult to control the litter, so at the first chance they got, they started lowering it straight down through a gully. It was easier, but not easy.

“We had to pick up the litter over boulders and around trees,” van Laer said. “We had to tend the litter the whole way.”

When they reached the pond, they put the litter on a sled and pulled it behind a snowmobile to an ambulance at the bottom of Old Mountain Road. The victim was taken to Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake and later transferred to a hospital in Burlington.

Screw and Climaxe, first climbed in 1975, takes its name from a once-popular ice tool called the Climaxe. Mellor’s guidebook Blue Lines: An Adirondack Ice Climber’s Guide describes the route as “one of the longest and best climbs we have.” Although it’s considered only moderate in difficulty (3+ on the NEIce scale), the ice is often thin, especially on the first pitch — making it difficult to protect against a fall.

‪ice screwIn this case, Palen said, the three climbed 40 feet or so to a ledge atop two gigantic boulders that rest against the cliff. They anchored themselves to the cliff, then the lead climber continued up the route, with one of his partners paying out rope as he went.

Climbers usually twist ice screws into the ice as they ascend and clip the rope to the screws. The idea is that if the leader falls, the belayer will keep the rope taut and the ice screw will limit the fall. If the climber is four feet above his last ice screw, for example, he will fall a total of eight feet (plus some rope stretch).

If the ice is thin, though, it may be impossible to place screws. Or if screws can be placed, they may not go in deep, meaning they may not be able to hold a fall.

Palen, who talked to the two partners after the accident, said the leader found the ice on the second pitch of Screw and Climaxe thinner than expected and was having trouble placing screws. He did pass a frozen sling, perhaps attached to a piton, sticking out of the ice. He clipped this and continued up, placing one or two screws as he got higher.

Then came more thin ice. About 60 feet above his belayer, the climber started angling right, trying to reach the safety of nearby trees. He slipped shortly before reaching them.

“When he started cutting over, he hit thinner ice and just fell,” Palen said.

The ice screw (or screws) popped out. He hit the belay ledge and continued falling below his partners, finally coming to rest a short distance from the base of the route. “That sling that he clipped saved him from hitting the ground,” Palen remarked.

Palen said the climbers seemed fairly experienced, but even experienced climbers can wig out on Screw and Climaxe if conditions are less than ideal. “It’s a notorious head climb,” he said. This season, he added, the route is “on the thinner side.”

Palen also noted that the climbers were wearing ski boots because they intended to ski back to Rock and River at the southern end of the Jackrabbit Trail. Although the plastic boots resembled ice-climbing boots, Palen said, they may have made the climb a bit harder.

Van Laer said the victim was fortunate that the rangers were back from the Trap Dike incident when the call came in. If the fall had occurred while the rangers were deep in the High Peaks Wilderness, they would not have been able to reach the scene so quickly. Given the severity of the victim’s injuries and the bleeding, he said, things could have ended a lot worse. “It was the worst-looking leg I’ve seen on a live person in 15 years of rescues,” van Laer said.

In the earlier incident, a 51-year-old man from Maryland became dizzy and fainted while in the Trap Dike. He regained consciousness but remained disoriented. After his friends sought help, the man was escorted to Marcy Dam by the caretaker at Lake Colden. He was then taken out of the Wilderness Area on a snowmobile and driven to his car at Adirondak Loj. The man declined additional medical treatment. Van Laer did not know how far, if at all, the man had climbed in the Trap Dike before fainting.

Other rangers who responded to the Screw and Climaxe incident were David Russell, Dan Fox, and Jim Giglinto.

Top photo by R.L. Stolz, Vertical Perspectives Photography: an ice climber ascends Screw and Climaxe.

Bottom photo: an ice screw.


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Phil Brown is the former Editor of Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack. Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing. He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.Visit Lost Pond Press for more information.

10 Responses

  1. Mudrat says:

    Thanks for the details, Phil.

  2. Todd Eastman says:

    Phil, excellent report!

  3. Phil Brown says:

    Thanks, Todd and Mudrat. I hate to be the bearer of bad news. I don’t think I’ll be climbing Screw and Climaxe anytime soon unless the ice thickens.

  4. Pat says:

    Phil, A good, objective news story. It’s painful just reading about the accident! You didn’t pass judgment on the climbers, but if they were so experienced and aware of the thin ice conditions, why didn’t they have the sense to turn back earlier, especially before dusk? Every winter, we warn ice fishermen (not sure how many are women) to be cautious of thin ice and changing conditions on the ponds. This winter has certainly not been severe enough to form consistent ice anyplace.The rangers deserve a hearty round of applause for their efforts.

  5. Taras says:

    Kudos to the rangers and volunteers! Two rescues in one day!

    “Screw and Climaxe, … takes its name from a once-popular ice tool called the Climaxe.”

    Oh? I’d swear the author of the route’s name had something else in mind. Thanks for clearing that up! 😉

  6. Walker says:

    Good report! But something tells me that the “climbers can wig out” phrase was meant to be in a direct quotation.

  7. Dave Pfurr says:

    Thank you, Phil for a very good and objective report on this incident. I am an ice climber and familiar with the risks involved. I am also familiar with the climber who was hurt. He is experienced and competent–but climbing is an adventure–and we deal with the conditions–at least to some extent–as we discover them on a given day. This party of climbers had engaged themselves in climbing a route that is known to have thin ice. As they climbed the route, they discovered that it was problematically thin–and the leader did what he thought was best to deal with the situation. Kudos to the rangers and volunteer rescuers who came to this guy’s aid. We all need help sometimes.

  8. NP says:

    I have climbed this route way back and in December 2014 I bailed out almost at the top of pitch 1, this route is not that steep on its earlier pitches but this is where the real game is.

    Definitely not a 3+ for 3+ leader.

  9. Sveinn says:

    Hi, what kind of sled do you use for a litter behind a snowmobile? Do you have any pictures or links?

    Best regards,